The year is 2013, and Kanye West is preparing to release his sixth solo studio album, titled Yeezus. The production has been one that was largely unknown and underground, and the album cover was rumored to be nothing but a clear CD case and some red tape on the side, clasping the case together. The CD design mimicked his stripped minimalist approach to the album, and perhaps his minimalist approach to the release and the hype of the album.
Yeezus was sent to stores about three days before the release, which was the norm at the time, so that stores could offer the physical copy the day the album came out online. As usual, an employee of a music store who probably didn’t care if he got caught stealing an extra CD got their hands on Yeezus a few days early and leaked the album. This was also the norm. Although it was a little annoying to artists at the time, it was a part of the process or releasing music. Artists did not fully recognize the value in it at the time, but those internet leaks hyped up albums and allowed people to sample the music before it came out. Those who cared about the industry would still purchase an album when it was legally available, and the added hype is worth a lot as well.
Now, it’s 2016, and a lot has changed in the music industry. No longer is illegal downloading “in.” No longer is music leakage really a thing, at least, it’s not as big a deal as it used to be. Physical CD sales don’t drive the industry anymore, now streaming rules the industry, and it’s actually back on its feet after the fall of music due to services that didn’t pay artists a cent like LimeWire and YouTube-MP3 (which as much as I’d like to justify, does not help artists at all). That leakage is no longer important, because artists aren’t as worried about their music not selling. They don’t need the hype quite as much because they know subscribers to Apple Music and Spotify will play their song and they will get a certain amount of money for that play.
The value of the leak has gone, and music is no longer as hyped. We know we will see it on our “new” page on our phone and be able to click play and listen freely, and legally to the music.
But Kanye’s latest album, titled — after several changes to the name — The Life of Pablo brought the leak back, but not in the traditional sense. Yeezy decided to promote his clothing line and show the world his album on a Tidal stream. He played the album from beginning to end in Madison Square Garden as models showed off his “Season 3” clothing line. He leaked the music himself. He didn’t rely on the middle man, the FYE employee sneaking an extra CD home after work, he was in complete control of the leak of his album, which is exactly how Kanye wants it. After the album playing, he didn’t release the album right away on Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, or even a CDQ for Tidal subscribers. And it sure wasn’t available in stores, either. As if it wasn’t hyped enough, Kanye added even more hype, and over the hours — and soon to be days — after “Season 3” the hype built up. He created even more hype by leaking the music himself.
The next day Kanye announced the album would be released after it was finished mastering, with a few extra tracks. Kanye knew going into Season 3 that he wasn’t going to release the album. He knew the leak of his own music would hype it up, and he knew that more and more people would be anticipating the official release of the album whenever it did drop.
We’ve seen something similar before. Beyoncé got a lot of the hype by ninja-dropping her self-titled album, but didn’t get the build up from leaking the album. Kanye, a man who has been out of the album game for three years, lives off of the hype, channeled it, and amplified the hype by taking it back to the days of the leak, and controlling the leak.
While some saw his late mastering and quick last minute changing of the name of the album as lazy and unpreparedness, I believe Ye knew exactly what he was doing, and the public is playing it exactly how he wants them to.